An Unexpected Way to Deal with Overwhelm

In the face of a large project, or sometimes life in general, having the following mantra has helped me not only take back my time, but enjoy whatever I’m working on so much more:

“I don’t do overwhelm.”

When the swell of external or self-imposed stress begins to make your chest tighten, try saying it to yourself while breathing deeply. It really does help.

The potential for overwhelm is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe: we can find it in obvious places like education and work, but also in the most unassuming places, like a cookie recipe or a child’s delay in falling asleep. 

Overwhelm can seep in when we least expect it, even in situations or circumstances we enjoy: hobbies and leisure time.

How many times have you thought about taking the time to really cultivate your personal style but have just felt bulldozed from the beginning by the amount of information and advice out there? Or wanted to sew a slightly more complicated pattern but lost steam because the thought of installing a zipper makes your palms sweat, even though you know that breaking the process into little steps and taking the time to practice new techniques can help you push through perceived glass ceilings?

It’s hard to remember to soothe our minds in those moments of overwhelm, because overwhelm shuts down the rational brain and turns on our sympathetic nervous system, preparing the body for “fight or flight.” 

Recalling the mantra “I don’t do overwhelm” can be particularly difficult in truly overwhelming life circumstances, and that’s ok. Our purpose as humans in not be exclusively rational. We deny ourselves so much of the raw beauty found in melancholy and difficulty by striving to remain at the top of our game all the time.

Certainly, a positive mindset is a valuable asset worth cultivating, but we should feel grateful when we have it, and ditch the guilt when we don’t. For those inevitable times when we don’t have it within us to say, “I don’t do overwhelm,” we should focus on turning to the meditative pleasure of simple handwork to help soothe our minds. 

Handwork is a pathway to peace

“The child gives us a beautiful lesson – that in order to form and maintain our intelligence, we must use our hands. ” – Maria Montessori

Typically we think of our minds as directing our hands, but the nerves run the other way as well: our hands also teach the mind, soothe it, and remind it that we have agency even in challenging circumstances. 

You can see this process clearly in the way babies and toddlers investigate their environments through touch, taking in sensory information and building their minds with each exploration. 

If you grew up Catholic like I did you’re familiar with the rosary, which you might think of as a prayer prop, and how the repetitive sliding of the beads over the sensitive fingertips anchors people in the present moment and gives the mind something tangible upon which to rest.

The simple sensory pleasure of working with our hands calms our fight or flight response, signaling safety for our over-stimulated minds.

This simple, un-rushed handwork was what I turned to in these past few months as I struggled with the overwhelm of an injury that was causing chronic pain. Unable to take up focused work due to the extra effort required just to get through everyday life, I turned to handsewing.

It was a departure from my usual, albeit ineffectual default when faced with overwhelm: zoning out on my phone. Instead of reaching for my phone, I reached for my Hinterland dress, and stitch by stitch, my hands reminded my mind that I was safe, capable, and worthy, despite the less-than-ideal circumstances. 

I hand-sewed in the mornings before getting out of bed, instead of looking at my phone. 

I hand-sewed in those little breaks in the day, instead of picking up my phone.

And I hand-sewed in the evenings, before bed, instead of picking up my phone.

It took me many, many hours of non-continuous handwork to make this dress, and as I stitched it together, I also stitched myself back together. 

Simple handwork for healing

  1. Find ways do a craft that is mentally soothing, rather than picking up your phone. Some good examples are hand-sewing, embroidery, simple knitting, or simple sewing projects. 
  2. Sew something that is far below your skill set, something with minimal details, that fits easily, or is something that’s a TNT pattern for you. Basically, something you could sew in your sleep.
  3. Experiment with being truly present with the sensation of the fabric, with the sound of the steam coming from the iron, the beauty of a simple seam. Put on some beautiful music. I like Sigur Ros, the Lofi Girl live stream, or David Byrne.


  1. My favorite simple knitting projects: Oslo hat, Fernwood Cardigan, Color Tip Tee, Everyday Socks
  2. Kiriki Press Stitch Library is a great embroidery stitch guide
  3. Tatter Blue Library for handsewing classes


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  1. I really loved your connections between working wih ones hands and cultivating calmness in the storm. ❤

  2. I love this! I’m planning a trip in a few weeks and flying for the first time in a long time and have used your “I don’t do overwhelm” mantra several times. I’m reminding myself to enjoy the moments in my vacation and not pressure myself to be perfectly prepared and to see everything and do everything when I’m there. A hand sewing project is a great idea! This time I’m taking a little watercolor kit to slow me down. Thanks for the inspiration Meg!

  3. We are going through a really intense year- so intense that all making has basically stopped. I’m trying to find moments to pick it up- but even just putting the phone away makes a huge difference in how good I feel about our present, past and future. It’s definitely been a “stormy” year. I finally decided to make a TNT pattern (sunshine yellow arenite pants) even though I’m pregnant just so I can slowly flat fell some seams and find peace in all the change. I’m about a third of the way through. It really does make a difference.

  4. I love working with my hands on anything. My passion is cross stitching, paper piecing quilts and patterns. I want to be immersed in soft natural fabrics and styles. From subtle to brilliant hues of color. I now feel my arthritic hands simply are painful as an itch to make them move.